Secondary schools in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch have been swamped by last-minute applications from families who recently leased or rented property in the area.
New laws mean that schools have to accept all students living within a set area, even if their families are only renting for a short time. Students outside the zone are chosen through a ballot rather than the old system where top schools could select them against set criteria, such as academic and sporting ability.
Under the former rules of the market-driven education system, schools were allowed to choose their students. The most popular ran enrolment schemes, but critics said this meant that students could not always go to their local school because high-achievers jumped the quue, while some failing schools had to close.
In a speech to principals outlining the changes, education minister Trevor Mallard said the Labour government considered that students were entitled to attend their local school. The legislative change affects 300 of 2,400 schools.
"There is no use promoting choice when a parent does not have the fundamental choice to send their child to the school next door," he said.
Under the former system, Mr Mallard said, some schools had large numbers of surplus places while others were over-subscribed. Estate agents say that demand for houses is now high in popular school zones.
Margaret McLeod, the principal of Wellington girls college, said several families had moved into the zone this term to get their daughters into the 1,100-strong school. One family signed only a short-term lease, but the education ministry has told the school it must accept their daughter.